For some scientists, the easiest and often best research subjects are those closest. Textbooks are full of lively examples which have led to great discovery.
Take the polio vaccine which has eradicated the deadly disease from most countries in the world:
Almost two decades before Jonas Salk announced his breakthrough, a research assistant at New York University, Maurice Brodie concocted a polio vaccine from spinal cords of monkeys. Brodie tested it on himself and his assistants. He failed for lack of sufficient virus. Salk too gave the vaccine to himself and to his wife and children, before trials started.
Physician Allen B. Weisse wrote a fascinating piece recently on the history of self-experimentation in medicine. He analyzed 465 documented instances over the past two centuries. He noted eight deaths and several Nobel prizes.
The most notorious one, Weisse writes, is when mosquitoes suspected of carrying yellow fever were allowed to bite researchers in 1900. One died and one contracted yellow fever.
Many were alone in their quest. Our own probiotic maestro, Metchnikoff, injected himself with blood containing relapsing fever spirochetes. As recently as 2005, Barry Marshall swallowed Heliobacter pylori to prove that it caused ulcers. He won the Nobel Prize for his selfless curiosity.
Many other areas of medicine saw brave entries: cardiology, radiology, and anesthesiology are a few.
Cardiologists threaded catheters into their own veins, radiologists drank radiated concoctions and anesthesiologists sniffed gases. Read the review by Weisse for fascinating accounts of bravery not expected inside medical labs. Also, a book by Lawrence K. Altman titled Who Goes First? written in 1987 supplies more in-depth tales.
There are laws about this, most notably the Nuremberg Code developed as a result of the horrific medical experiments by Nazis.
“No experiment should be conducted if there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur, except, perhaps, in experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.”
While self-experimenting may sound a bit akin to the LSD trials by Timothy Leary in the 1960s, the power of hunches can sometimes lead to truth.